School Meals Are Way Too Sugary

everyone knew it; a groundbreaking study confirms it

In the fall of 2015, I asked the editors at Civil Eats if I could write an article exploring the high sugar content in many school breakfasts. I wanted to better understand how my own district (Houston ISD) and others around the country could regularly serve “sugar bomb” breakfasts like this one, even after the Obama-era school nutrition reforms:

In reporting the Civil Eats article, I learned to my surprise that unlike sodium or saturated fat, there’s no cap on added sugars in school meals. That’s because the current school nutrition standards were drafted before the federal government had issued guidance on how much added sugar is too much. And even if a district had wanted to limit added sugars, manufacturers’ Nutrition Facts labels weren’t required to disclose them. So without a clear basis or practical way to limit added sugars, districts could still serve very sugary foods and drinks as long as they fell within a given meal’s calorie limits.

More recently, however, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) have recommended that added sugars be limited to less than 10 percent of total calories, and Nutrition Facts labels must now disclose added sugars. Yet despite these developments, the added sugars loophole remains.

Now an important new study quantifies exactly why we should be concerned. Looking at data from the 2014–2015 school year, researchers found that:

  • 9 out of 10 schools exceed the DGA limit for added sugars for breakfast and nearly 7 out of 10 exceed it for lunch.

  • Breakfasts in low poverty and mid-low poverty schools were among those most likely to be too sugary.

  • The leading source of added sugars at both breakfast and lunch was flavored milk. Other leading sources were sweetened cereals, condiments and toppings, muffins and sweet/quick breads, and cake.

  • Overall, 62 percent of children consumed breakfasts that exceeded the DGA added sugar limit, and almost half (47 percent) consumed lunches that exceeded the limit.

Given how much sugar most American children are eating outside of school, and because consuming too much sugar is associated with weight gain, poor diet quality, dental caries, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease, these numbers are alarming. 

The study’s authors offer a number of recommendations to reduce kids’ school sugar overload, such as having the USDA limit how often flavored milk can be served (just once a week, for example, or just at one meal), as well as establishing limits on the added sugar content of cereals and bakery products served in schools.

Ultimately, though, it’s time to align school nutrition regulations with the new added sugars DGA, getting rid of this loophole once and for all.

Now for the rest of this week’s kid/food round-up. . . .

Top Kid/Food News 🧒🏽 📰

  • The pandemic has caused approximately 370 million children to miss 40 percent of school meals globally, reports UNICEF and the World Food Programme. Because so many children rely on school meals for needed nutrition, the two agencies urge governments around the world to prioritize reopening their schools.

  • The USDA has released guidance increasing P-EBT benefits (pandemic food benefits tied to missed school meals) by 16 percent and extending them to qualifying children under age 6. The guidance also encourages states to make the higher P-EBT rate retroactive from the start of this school year. More here from Laura Reiley of the Washington Post.

  • Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff used his first solo outing to highlight food insecurity during a recent visit to a middle school in Washington, D.C.

  • A new study looks at how the pandemic is affecting parents’ feeding practices. Those under greater stress were more likely to manage their children’s emotions and behaviors with less healthy food. On a positive note, 75 percent of respondents are now sitting down to regular meals with their kids.

  • British supermarket chain Asda is removing cartoon characters from some of its less healthy store-brand products in an effort to curb childhood obesity.

  • Is healthy food too expensive? Sociologist Caitlin Daniel speaks directly to low-income moms in a nuanced piece well worth reading.

  • Some Texas high schoolers are running a grocery store at their school, offering free food to students and staff in need.

Cafeteria Corner: School Food News 🍎 🏫

  • President Biden has signed an executive order to strengthen Buy American requirements for federal agencies, but it’s unclear whether or how the tightened rules will affect school meal programs. Right now, according to the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, over half the fish served in U.S. schools is processed in China, 81 percent of the apple juice is imported, and 26 states serve Chinese canned peaches. [In 2014, I and a colleague spearheaded a successful petition campaign to keep Chinese-processed poultry out of American schools; you can read my 2014 exposé on why the Buy American rules fell short in that instance.]

  • A new study finds that school meal participation in Connecticut dropped 32 percent in the immediate aftermath of pandemic school closures, but substantially increased in the following two months, thanks districts’ and local community efforts. Food service directors also reported an increase in staff morale, innovation, flexibility, and confidence after this trial by fire.  

  • Congress Must Provide Healthy School Meals for All Kids in COVID Relief Bill,urges Dr. Katie Wilson, Executive Director for the Urban School Food Alliance and former USDA Deputy Under Secretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services.

  • Anneliese Tanner, the progressive school nutrition director for Austin ISD (and one of my interviewees in Kid Food), will soon be leaving that post to join the Chef Ann Foundation as head of the organization’s school assessment and research team.

  • No Kid Hungry is providing Alabama schools with $400,000 to support school meals during the pandemic.

  • Districts have until February 8th to apply for the next round of Team Nutrition training grants for school meal recipe development.

For Little Eaters—and Those Who Feed Them 👶 🥣

  • A recent study found that Black children are significantly more likely than non-Hispanic white children to have an allergy to shellfish and fin fish. The researchers also offer theories as to why this is the case.

  • Health journalist and blogger Julie Revelant has launched the first episode of her new kid/food podcast, Food Issues, which promises to “tackle the real challenges around feeding kids and offer practical insight to help organizations, communities and parents create change.” It’s available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher. 

  • “My Mother-in-Law Won’t Stop Feeding My Kids Secret Junk Food.” If you can relate, Slate’s Care and Feeding columnist has advice.

  • Spoons Across America is offering an in-home course for children aged 8 to 11 called “The Food Exploration Project.” Each of the course’s nine sessions is 45 minutes long and covers a wide range of food and cooking topics. More here from the New York Times.

  • Your kid hates vegetables. Now what? Real Mom Nutrition’s Sally Kuzemchak has answers and reassurance.

The Grown-Ups’ Table 🍸🍴

Some interesting food links that caught my eye:

  • “We found that the ingredients were not tuna and not fish.” - Ominous quote from the lawyer suing Subway over its allegedly fake tuna sandwiches.

  • New Yorker food writer Helen Rosner holds forth on the obvious superiority of pellet ice. (I feel seen.)

  • First bucatini, now Grape Nuts—another unexpected pandemic food shortage.

  • The New York Times’s food writers offer 17 of their best cooking tips.

  • Nothing says “I love you” like . . . candy-flavored mac-n-cheese? 🤔 Kraft is giving away 1,000 boxes for Valentines Day.

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Until Next Time . . .

OK, that’s it for this week!

And don’t forget: If you work in the kid/food world and have something big going on—an article or op-ed you've just written, an innovation in your school food program, a new advocacy campaign or policy initiative, recently published research, or any other news or tidbits—shoot me an email! I can’t promise that every item will make it into the newsletter, but I’d love to know about it.

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